June 19, 2001 -- It's 10 pm: do you know where your children are in cyberspace? If they're like one in five kids between the ages of 10 and 19 who use the Internet regularly, they may be receiving unwanted sexual advances online, report researchers in the June 20 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
In a telephone survey of 1,501 teens who are frequent Internet users, 19% reported they were targets of unwanted sexual solicitation over the previous year. Although 75% of this group said they were unfazed by online come-ons from strangers, the remaining 25% reported that they became extremely upset or afraid after a sexual advance.
Some kids faced aggressive solicitations, in which the person at the other end tried to entice them into face-to-face or telephone contact. Those most at risk for unwanted advances were girls, older teens, troubled youths, frequent Internet users, and those who regularly logged on to various chat rooms.
None of the kids in the study was sexually assaulted as a result of the contacts, and the authors note that the findings "are not so alarming that they should by themselves encourage parents to bar children from accessing the Internet."
But they do raise enough concerns that parents, educators, public health officials, healthcare professionals, law enforcement officers and, of course, youths themselves need to be aware of the potential for serious harm, a study co-author tells WebMD.
"Kids need to know -- a lot of them do, but there are some who are naïve about this -- that when you go to places where you're interacting with people who you don't know on the web, there's a likelihood that you're going to get hit on, and just being prepared for that is important, because you tend to get more upset about it if it's not something you ever thought about happening." says David Finkelhor, PhD, professor of sociology from the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
Finkelhor emphasizes that at the least sign of discomfort about where online conversations are going, kids should immediately terminate them and exit the site. When they do get hit on, they should report it to either a "cyber tip line" or to their Internet service provider.
"They should know that it is against the law -- it is a crime -- to sexually solicit a young person over the web if you're an adult," he says.
Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, tells WebMD "our first bit of advice to parents is to get involved in your kid's life. Learn what he's doing. If you set limits in terms of television and movies and things like that, do the same thing with the Internet."
Allen says that kids are often not aware that seemingly harmless contacts can pose a real threat. "Kids, particularly younger kids, tend to take what they get at face value.
"The message to kids is that when you're online, you're in public, and you have to view the kinds of encounters that you have online with a healthy dose of skepticism," stresses Allen. "And if you don't feel right about it, if you're concerned about the kind of content you're encountering, tell somebody. Tell your mom, tell your dad, tell your teacher."